The Role of Emotions in Fleet Driver Risk

Most drivers have the potential to get annoyed if the circumstances are right. Particular traffic situations or events may turn an otherwise courteous driver into an angry and hostile risk taker. Perhaps you’re late for an important appointment and there’s a ‘Sunday driver’ in front of you, or someone that seems to be on another planet. These are the kinds of circumstances when our emotions can get out of control and, before we know it, we’re driving recklessly. Strong emotional needs and reactions interfere with driving performance and decision taking and compromise safety.

Research shows that there is a strong link between the emotional state of the driver and their risk of being involved in a crash, and there are two accepted explanations for the link between risk and emotion: firstly, changes in emotional state (either positive or negative) can raise an individual’s propensity for risk taking as a way of letting off steam or accentuating our level of excitement. Sometimes these emotions may be rather fleeting in response to a specific set of circumstances, other times they can be quite enduring, especially when we are going through particular life stresses. Secondly, poor emotional regulation contributes strongly to risk taking, especially in relation to anger and impulse. This is believed to be due to the characteristics of the individual, rather than a more temporary emotional state caused by some specific trigger or life event.

Whether temporary or deep-seated in our personality, one of the most common kinds of emotional reactions in traffic is driver aggression, more commonly known as ‘Road Rage’. Angry and/or aggressive drivers typically demonstrate hostility towards other road users, and have poor expectations of other drivers’ ability. When angered, drivers can become unpredictable, overtaking at risk, speeding and driving too close to other vehicles as a way of intimidating an imagined perpetrator. It’s not surprising that angry and aggressive drivers have an increased chance of being involved in a crash.

The psychology of the driver is the most important factor causing this aberrant behaviour that’s rooted in a complex mixture of personality, traffic scenarios and how the driver interprets traffic-related events. Psychologists have emphasised the importance ways of thinking have as the precursor to these emotional responses. For example, we know that drivers often blame other drivers for making them angry and consider that their behavioural response is not aggressive, whereas the same behaviour in someone else is considered aggressive. It is these kinds of thought patterns that can exacerbate a behavioural outcome. But it’s not just driver aggression that can affect the way people drive. Emotions such as boredom can lead to tiredness and driver fatigue, which is well known to impair performance and increase the risk of crash involvement.

There’s also the problem of driving excitement and the desire to experience the ‘thrill’ of driving, often through excessive speed and fast cornering to accentuate the experience of positive emotions – the driver actively seeks an adrenaline rush. Research has found that sensation seeking is related to collisions, convictions, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, speeding, not wearing seatbelts and various other unsafe driving behaviours. Other emotional states such as driving anxiety, tension, worry and poor expectation of one’s own driving ability can lead to driver error and, in particular, silly mistakes and minor crashes.

Certain personality traits are known to be important in determining levels of driving anxiety, including self-confidence and self-esteem. Self-esteem is defined as how much an individual approves of, or likes, him/herself, while self-confidence is how much confidence he or she has in their ability to succeed. Low self-confidence and self esteem are commonly associated with increased stress.

Of course, we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t have emotions. When we identify that we are driving under the influence of what could be described as negative emotions, our choice of coping strategy is a behavioural outcome that can make the difference between a safe and an unsafe journey.

The Driver Risk Index™ assesses the behavioural risk factors identified in this article – request a free demo.

This article originally appeared in ADI News, December 2008